Africa tries to end vaccine inequalities by replicating its own | News, Sports, Jobs

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CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) – In a pair of Cape Town warehouses converted into a maze of sterile air-sealed chambers, young scientists assemble and calibrate the equipment needed to reverse-engineer a vaccine against the coronavirus which has yet to reach South Africa and most of the world’s poorest people.

The energy in sparkling labs matches the urgency of their mission to reduce vaccine disparities. By working to replicate Moderna’s COVID-19 shot, scientists are effectively ending an industry that has largely prioritized rich countries over poor countries in terms of sales and manufacturing.

And they do so with the unusual support of the World Health Organization, which coordinates a vaccine research, training and production center in South Africa and an associated supply chain for critical raw materials. It’s a last-resort effort to do doses for people who deprive themselves of them, and the intellectual property implications are still unclear.

“We’re doing this for Africa right now, and it’s motivating us,” said Emile Hendricks, a 22-year-old biotechnologist for Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, the company that is trying to replicate the Moderna shot. “We can no longer count on these great superpowers to come and save us.”

Some experts see reverse engineering – recreating vaccines from shards of publicly available information – as one of the few remaining ways to correct the pandemic’s power imbalances. So far, only 0.7% of vaccines have gone to low-income countries, while almost half have gone to rich countries, according to an analysis by the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

The fact that the WHO, which relies on the goodwill of rich countries and the pharmaceutical industry for its sustainability, is leading the attempt to reproduce a proprietary vaccine demonstrates the depth of supply disparities.

The UN-backed effort to equalize global vaccine distribution, known as COVAX, has failed to alleviate severe shortages in poor countries. The doses given come in at a fraction of what is needed to close the gap. Meanwhile, the pressure for pharmaceutical companies to share, including the Biden administration’s demands on Moderna, has gone nowhere.

Until now, WHO has never been directly involved in replicating a new vaccine for current global use despite objections from the original developers. The Cape Town hub is intended to expand access to the new messenger RNA technology that Moderna, along with Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, have used in their vaccines.

“This is the first time that we are doing it at this level, because of the urgency and also because of the novelty of this technology,” said Martin Friede, vaccine research coordinator at WHO who helps run the center.

Dr Tom Frieden, the former head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, described the world as “being held hostage” by Moderna and Pfizer, whose vaccines are considered the most effective against COVID- 19. The new mRNA process uses the genetic code for the coronavirus spike protein and is believed to elicit a better immune response than traditional vaccines.

Arguing that U.S. taxpayers largely funded Moderna’s vaccine development, the Biden administration insisted the company must increase production to help supply developing countries. The global deficit until 2022 is estimated at 500 million and 4 billion doses, depending on the number of other vaccines on the market.

“The United States government has played a very important role in making Moderna the company it is,” said David Kessler, head of Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. program to accelerate the development of the COVID vaccine. -19.

Kessler declined to say how far the administration would go in putting pressure on the company. “They understand what we expect,” he said.

Moderna has committed to building a vaccine factory in Africa at some point in the future. But after begging drugmakers to share their recipes, raw materials and technological know-how, some of the poorest countries have given up the wait.

Afrigen chief executive Petro Terblanche said the Cape Town company aims to have a version of the Moderna vaccine ready to be tested in humans within a year and scaled up for a commercial production shortly thereafter.

“We have a lot of competition from Big Pharma. They don’t want us to be successful, ”Terblanche said. “They are already starting to say that we don’t have the capacity to do it. We will show them.

If the team in South Africa is successful in making a version of Moderna’s vaccine, the information will be made public for use by others, Terblanche said. Such a split is closer to an approach that US President Joe Biden defended in the spring and which the pharmaceutical industry strongly opposes.

Commercial production is the point where intellectual property could become a problem. Moderna has said she will not take legal action against a company for infringing its vaccine rights, but she also has not offered to help companies who have volunteered to inject her. MRNA.

President Noubar Afeyan said Moderna had determined that it would be better to increase production itself rather than share the technology and planned to deliver billions more doses next year.

“Over the next six to nine months, the most reliable way to manufacture high quality and efficient vaccines will be to manufacture them,” Afeyan said.

Zoltan Kis, an expert on messenger RNA vaccines at the UK University of Sheffield, said replicating Moderna’s vaccine is “doable,” but the task would be much easier if the company shared its expertise. Kis estimated that the process involves less than a dozen major steps. But some procedures are tricky, like sealing the fragile messenger RNA into lipid nanoparticles, he said.

“It’s like a very complicated cooking recipe,” he said. “Having the recipe would be very, very helpful, and it would also help if someone could show you how to do it.”

A UN-backed public health organization is still hoping to persuade Moderna that its approach to delivering vaccines to poorer countries misses the mark. Formed in 2010, the Medicines Patent Pool initially focused on convincing pharmaceutical companies to share patents for AIDS drugs.

Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, who is among members of Congress backing a bill calling on the United States to invest more in the manufacture and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in low- and middle-income countries, said the reverse engineering will not happen. fast enough to prevent the virus from mutating and spreading further.

“We have to show a little rush. We have to show a sense of urgency, and I don’t see that urgency, ”he said. “Either we end this pandemic or we fight our way through. “

Campaigners argue that the meager amount of vaccine available to poorer countries through donations, COVAX and purchases suggests the West-dominated pharmaceutical industry is down.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press.

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